A Good Climate for Investment

Reducing reliance on carbon for energy -- to safeguard our atmosphere and our climate -- could bring about not personal deprivation but a worldwide economic boom

IT is not news that climate shapes history. What is news is that the warming of our atmosphere has propelled our climate into a new state of instability. Only in the United States is anyone still seriously debating whether the earth is undergoing a steady, and threatening, warming. An extensive public-relations campaign by fossil-fuel interests has helped the statements of a dozen or so "greenhouse skeptics" -- many of them funded by industry -- to receive as much news coverage as the findings of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC, which includes more than 2,500 scientists from more than a hundred countries, has issued a series of reports since 1989 about the ongoing and potentially disastrous nature of the problem. Most other countries take the scientists at their word -- as was demonstrated at last winter's international conference on global warming, in Kyoto.
But while the climate crisis contains staggering destructive potential, it also contains an extraordinary opportunity to expand the wealth and stability of the global economy. We have the technology. We have an institutional precedent. What we need now is the will to think big and make it work.

Each year we pump at least six billion tons of heat-trapping carbon into the innermost layer of our atmosphere, whose outer extent is only about twelve miles overhead. According to an IPCC report released this year, atmospheric CO2 will, if the buildup is left unchecked, double from its pre-industrial level within the next century. That doubling of CO2 correlates with an increase in the global temperature of at least three to eight degrees Fahrenheit. The last ice age was just five to nine degrees colder than our current climate.

The economic consequences of the succession of extreme weather events all over the world during the past few years -- floods, droughts, severe storms, altered rainfall patterns, heat waves, cold snaps -- are visible in the rising disaster-relief costs to governments and the escalating losses of the world's property insurers. During the 1980s insurance losses due to extreme weather events averaged approximately $2 billion a year; in the 1990s they have been averaging $12 billion a year. The solution is as simple as it is overwhelming. The scientists of the IPCC tell us that in order to restore our atmosphere to the hospitable state we have enjoyed for the past 10,000 years, we need to cut emissions from the burning of coal and oil not by the 5.2 percent specified in the Kyoto Protocol, which was released at the end of the conference, but by 50 to 70 percent. This means eventually phasing out virtually every oil-burning furnace, gasoline-burning car, and coal-powered generating plant and turning to renewable, climate-friendly energy sources. The economic activity this would stimulate could provide significant employment for oil and coal workers, who could be retrained to manufacture, for example, windmills, solar-energy systems, and fuel cells for electricity and heat.

*  *  *

Against this background the substance of the Kyoto Protocol is puny. That is not to deny the political achievement at Kyoto. Some 160 nations came together to sound an alarm about our common future. To do so, they had to overcome several major divisions -- between the United States and the European Union, between the North and the South, between the environmental and business communities. It is to their great credit that they managed to overcome those divisions to the extent that they did.

But if we judge Kyoto by the real requirements of nature rather than by the obstacles of diplomacy, the protocol is a hollow shell. Its goals, as noted, are orders of magnitude below what nature requires if the global climate is to be stabilized. It is, moreover, deeply flawed by an emissions-trading mechanism that is unworkable and unenforceable and that, together with a system of "joint implementation," amounts to little more than a set of loopholes to be exploited by industrial interests.

And yet even this weak and ineffectual agreement would not today be ratified by the United States Senate. In fact it may never be ratified by the United States.

The fossil-fuel industry is one of the largest commercial enterprises in history. It supports the economies of more than a dozen nations, in the Middle East, the Americas, and Africa. The resources it can use to fight its demise or transformation are virtually without limit. And it has already begun to use them.
Since 1991 the fossil-fuel lobby has mounted an extremely effective campaign to persuade the public and policymakers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still unresolved scientifically. To take one example, in 1991 several coal and utility companies launched a program to set up interviews with journalists for three dissenting scientists. The campaign, according to strategy documents that were later exposed in the press, was designed to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact" and was aimed specifically at "older, less educated men" and "young lower-income women." The geographic targets of the campaign included areas where electricity came from coal and districts whose congressmen served on the House Energy Committee.

The effectiveness of the campaign can be seen in the results of two Newsweek polls, conducted in 1991 and 1996. In 1991, 35 percent of the people polled said they believed that global warming was a serious problem. By 1996 the number had dropped to 22 percent.

In Washington, testimony by skeptics, including those funded by industry, led in 1996 to dramatic cuts in the funding that Congress allocated to research on global climate change. And last summer it led as well to a 95-0 vote in the Senate on a resolution, sponsored by Senators Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, against ratification of the Kyoto Protocol -- on the grounds that the treaty would exempt large developing nations, such as India, China, and Mexico, from the first round of emissions reductions.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In